Allentown, PA – In 18th century Venice, Commedia dell’Arte was king. The classic theatrical style, which features masks, stock characters, and comic improvisation, was beloved by the nobility and working class alike, and trips to see the side-splitting misadventures of the masked characters were a vital part of the Venetian social scene.
Now, for the first time, a Commedia dell’Arte play will appear on the Muhlenberg College mainstage: Carlo Goldoni’s comic masterpiece “Servant of Two Masters,” directed by Muhlenberg theater professor Francine Roussel.
Presented by Muhlenberg’s Department of Theatre & Dance, “Servant of Two Masters” runs Dec. 3–6 in the College’s Baker Theatre. Tickets and information are available at http://www.muhlenberg.edu/theatre and at 484-664-3333.
A longtime teacher and practitioner of Commedia dell’Arte, Roussel says that modern audiences are consistently surprised by how relevant — and how funny — they find “Servant of Two Masters” to be.
“‘Servant’ is a comedy of all times,” Roussel says. “It doesn’t age, and humans are humans. We can all recognize ourselves in the 18th century stock characters.”
The play follows the misadventures of the scheming servant Arlecchino, who comes up with a plan to sate his legendary appetites: he will serve two masters at the same time, and thus receive twice the money and twice the meals. But serving more than one master could land him in deep trouble, so Arlecchino must hide his double life. Comedy unfolds against a Venetian backdrop of romance and deception.
The Commedia dell’Arte tradition dates back to the 1500s and is a direct precursor of today’s slapstick and sketch comedy. In fact, the word “slapstick” derives from a prop that Commedia actors use to hit each other as loudly (and painlessly) as possible. The modern Harlequin figure, with his familiar patchwork costume, also traces his roots to Commedia; the English name “Harlequin” and Italian “Arlecchino” both derive from the French “Arlequin,” and the character had already been around for more than 150 years by the time he appeared in “Servant of Two Masters,” in 1746.
“The character of Arlecchino is so unique, so endearing, and so energetic,” Roussel says. “Everybody wants to follow him wherever he wants to go.”
The role of Arlecchino will be played by Muhlenberg senior Henry Evans, an actor, dancer, and acrobat who co-founded Muhlenberg’s Circus Workshop in the spring of 2014. Evans will put his acrobat and juggling skills to good use in the production. He says that working on “Servant” has been similar in many ways to his circus performances.
“It’s like a juggling routine,” he says. “It’s this balance of keeping the tradition of Commedia, but at the same time putting our own spin on it, making it contemporary.”
For an undergraduate theater program, Muhlenberg has an unusual degree of connection to the Commedia dell’Arte tradition. Roussel frequently teaches a Commedia class, and a three-month, Commedia-centered program in Arezzo, Italy, is one of the most popular study abroad destinations for Muhlenberg theatre students.
Roussel holds Master of Arts degrees in both modern European and classical French literature from the University of Paris, La Sorbonne. She also earned the Certificat of L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, Paris, where she studied mime and mask. Roussel was part of the “Groupe des 50,” which established the Actors Studio in Paris. She has worked extensively in theatre and film in both Europe and the United States over the past several decades.
The production also features scenic and lighting design by Curtis Dretsch, costume design by Liene Dobraja, and fight choreography by Michael G. Chin.
Performances of “Servant of Two Masters” are Dec. 3 – 6: Thursday through Saturday, Dec. 3-5, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 6 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for students. Performances are in the Baker Theatre in the Trexler Pavilion for Theatre and Dance at Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown.
Founded in 1848, Muhlenberg College is a highly selective, private, four-year residential college located in Allentown, Pa., approximately 90 miles west of New York City. With an undergraduate enrollment of approximately 2,200 students, Muhlenberg College is dedicated to shaping creative, compassionate, collaborative leaders through rigorous academic programs in the arts, sciences, business, education and public health. A member of the Centennial Conference, Muhlenberg competes in 22 varsity sports. Muhlenberg is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Muhlenberg offers Bachelor of Arts degrees in theater and dance. The Princeton Review ranked Muhlenberg’s theater program in the top twelve in the nation for eight years in a row, and Fiske Guide to Colleges lists both the theater and dance programs among the top small college programs in the United States. Muhlenberg is one of only eight colleges to be listed in Fiske for both theater and dance.